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FARMINGTON — A mining company that was sued for its alleged role in the Gold King Mine spill received an American Exploration and Mining Association environmental excellence award during the annual conference this year for its efforts to reclaim and remediate historical mine sites in the Silverton, Colorado, area over the past three decades.

Sunnyside Gold Corporation, the last mining company to actively operate in the Silverton caldera, was recognized for “five years of responsible mining and 30 years of successful remediation and reclamation,” according to the award announcement provided to The Daily Times by Sunnyside Gold Corporation.

This award comes as Sunnyside faces continued litigation alleging the bulkheads it installed in the Sunnyside Mine's American Tunnel led to changes in water levels. The suit claims this eventually created a buildup of water in the Gold King Mine that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency contractors later accidentally released when they breached a collapsed portal into the mine.

“The primary purpose of the engineered concrete bulkheads was to isolate the interior workings of the Sunnyside Mine, and to prevent water flow from the interior workings to the Animas Basin,” said Kevin Roach, Sunnyside’s director of reclamation, in an email to The Daily Times.

Roach said that while Sunnyside owns mines near the Gold King, it never owned or operated the Gold King Mine. He said the company was not involved in the Gold King Mine spill and has no responsibility for it.

“There is no physical man-made connection between the Sunnyside and Gold King mine workings,” Roach said.

And Roach stood by the decision to install bulkheads in Sunnyside’s mine workings.

“One of the most important lessons that can be derived from SGC’s successful reclamation is that, in appropriate circumstances, bulkheading of closed mines can be an effective method to improve water quality,” he said.

Sunnyside has maintained the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which triggered the spill, bears the responsibility. Roach further highlighted studies showing the water quality in the Animas River returned to pre-spill conditions shortly after the incident.

“Sunnyside Gold Corporation’s successful reclamation improved water quality in the area, and this improvement continued to be demonstrated by water quality sampling after the EPA’s Gold King Mine spill,” Roach said.

The award also comes after Sunnyside refused to comply with an order the EPA sent the company to install groundwater wells and meteorological stations as part of the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund Site remediation work. The Superfund site includes 48 mine sites believed to have impacted water quality in the Animas River. Some of these mine sites were related to Sunnyside's operations.

Working to reclaim land

Over the past 30 years, Sunnyside has spent $30 million on reclamation work. Roach said much of Sunnyside’s work occurred at sites it does not own. In addition to installing bulkheads, this work included relocating or removing mine tailings from several sites, including near the Animas River and its tributaries. 

Sunnyside Gold Corporation was a latecomer to the mining activity in the Silverton caldera, entering the region in 1985 when it acquired the Sunnyside Mine, which it operated until 1991. The mine itself dates back to 1873 and includes two tunnels for hauling ore and drainage, one of which is the American Tunnel.

Following the installation of bulkheads in the American Tunnel, the Sunnyside Gold Corporation was released from liabilities in 2003 when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded it had completed its obligations laid out in a consent decree.

In terms of the future, Sunnyside does not have plans to resume mining in the Silverton caldera. However, that does not necessarily mean mining is gone from the caldera forever.

“SGC’s successful reclamation demonstrates that modern mining operations can actually improve water quality,” Roach said. “The proof that modern mining is compatible with environmental stewardship should facilitate future mining in the event that any small economic deposits remain.”

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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